SATURDAY I GOT up early to burn some of the extra calories I had collected over the Thanksgiving holiday. I ran three miles in the nearby park, did some stretches to keep me elastic and ended with some fast kickboxing moves against an innocent tree.
During the final run back to my car, I made a stop at a non-descript phone booth. Using an anonymous long distance calling card that was only used once and for this call only, I made a call to Philadelphia. With three hours ahead, Yehova Feingold had just opened his shop on Philly’s jewelers’ row, near the old town district. His creaky old voice took the call and I said, “Hello Uncle Yehova, it is Sarah speaking.”
He didn’t hesitate. “Sarah, my good child, how are you? Happy Thanksgiving.”
After a few non-relevant pleasantries, I said, “By the way, Uncle Yehova, I came across some silver chandeliers with engravings. Would you be interested?” Anything to do with light was our code name for diamonds and any latter modification like ‘engraved’ meant ‘cut.’
I immediately knew that something was wrong because he didn’t ask me how many chandeliers I had to offer. Instead, there was a second of silence.
“Dear child, dear Sarah.” Yehova was stalling, trying to find a way to say ‘no.’ A complete novelty. “Are they a recent acquisition of yours?”
“I got them a few days ago and I immediately thought of you.”
“My child, I am afraid I have no use for them at the moment.”
“Uncle, what is the matter? Is family coming over from Europe?” ‘Family’ was the code word for police.
Stalling, Yehova blew his nose. “You know… my mother told me not to buy any new stuff right now.”
His mother, who was his mother? That code didn’t exist. I decided to blow the spy talk. “Whose mother? Not yours, Uncle, you are close to 75.”
“No, the mother of the, eh, East. In a literal sense.”
Mother of the East? What did he mean? Who the heck? A mother was an authority figure, some kind of politician? Uh… oh… things were beginning to dawn on me. I dropped the handset of the phone, did a few steps back and began to kick a nearby trashcan with all my might. It fell over and spilled paper, trash and a fat rat that took off toward the next rain gutter. I picked up the phone again.
“Nothing you could do? Make an exception for a little girl?”
There was another silence, and then he hung up, kind of an apologetic gesture.
Shit. I kicked the trashcan again. Hurt my big toe. Did a little scream and dance. Everything coming down on me. Continued to jog back home.
Yehova Feingold was my main contact for getting rid of my stolen goods. To this point, we had always had a good and fine working relationship, never a hitch. I specialized in uncut stones or bigger cut stones and he would cut, divide or modify the stones and, to say it in banking terms, laundered the jewels.
But Thomas ‘The Fence’ Cornelius III had somehow pulled the stops. Mother of the East. That meant that I couldn’t try any of my other Eastern contacts besides Yehova. To prove the point, I made another stop at a pay phone and called another number, this time in Miami. This time a nice Spanish-speaking lady told me in a haughty voice that all transactions were currently suspended, call back another time.
Another call to Boston gave me a similar response.
I was stuck. I was stuck with 200K worth of stones that were hotter than hell.
I finished my run, showered and wolfed down a quick fruit salad. The rest of the family, including Mundy, was still sleeping. Then I set out with my Miata to the Downtown San Diego police headquarters. I arrived at nine a.m. sharp and Juanita picked me up at the front desk. Me, being a good citizen, I had never actually been inside police headquarters, so I looked left and right.
Juanita read my mind. “You won’t see too many criminals here. Most of them are booked at the local precincts and then transferred directly into the central jail.” She looked slightly amused at my playful disappointed mimic. We somehow had reached a non-aggression pact without agreeing to anything. Fine with me.
Ron shook my hand and offered me some original SDPD coffee in an original SDPD mug. We had Danish pastries and doughnuts as we spread out in a small meeting room that had no windows. And no fresh air. I felt like I was on SDPD Blue.
“So, what is new?” I asked them.
“Who starts?” Juanita looked at Ron.
He took a quick sip, consulted his notes and gave a hurried wrap-up of our own adventures. “We interviewed the surviving daughter, Phoebe Eastman. A starving artist, without talent, according to Calendar. And I am not one to disagree. But living in La Jolla, with an atelier in San Diego and a very nice car. Not much room for a brush and canvas in the trunk.” Ron put a DMV computer printout on the table. BMW Z1, nice, nice.
“Don’t forget the very expensive necklace,” I threw in.
“Hang on, yesterday you said ‘excellent’ piece. Overnight it became ‘expensive?'”
“OK, OK, lesson number 18, excellence always means expensive.”
Ron continued, “Credit rating agency gives her a good mark. Debt free, healthy credit limits on her cards. That’s what I found out so far.”
Juanita threw in her results of yesterday’s research. “She has an art major, never had an exhibition apart from an obscure gallery representation, a year ago. Found it on the Internet.” She showed us a note in the local paper mentioning Phoebe. “She will inherit Daddy’s small apartment. And here we have a nice segue to talk about our victim. He was a former college professor who lost his job in an education downsizing cycle—don’t laugh, that’s what it was called in the early nineties. Daddy had small jobs on the side, did SAT and GREP training and lately, night watchman. His apartment is almost debt free, around 15K left on the mortgage. Has a small life insurance policy, he opened in his academic days but quit paying premiums after he couldn’t afford them anymore. Phoebe will get about 20K from that. Plus an old Cadillac Cutlass twice around the odometer.”
“That’s sad, don’t you think?” I said, feeling it. “A life resulting in such few belongings of value, some policies, a car, a home. And maybe a box of photos of better times.”
Ron ignored me; he probably saw worse things going on every day of the week. We looked over some of the papers Juanita had collected on Phoebe and her dad. “I think we agree that she is not the hottest candidate to have killed her old man and do the jewelry store job.” As Juanita and I didn’t answer immediately, Ron looked up. “Do you? Or don’t you?”
Juanita raised her hand. “I do, I think there is something fishy with her lifestyle. But as you said, maybe it’s her rich secret boyfriend.”
“Let’s work a little more on that angle. Maybe there is a reason why the boyfriend threw money at her.”
“You mean the boyfriend used Phoebe to get to Daddy to get into the safe.”
“Sounds farfetched, I agree. But still, something about her lifestyle.” Ron smiled. “As a great man once said, ‘our main weapons are called check, double-check and recheck.'”
Juanita nodded. “Maybe the neighbors will know something. I’ll snoop around this afternoon. Gives me a reason to move my stubby little legs.”
Ron continued. “OK, the other interview was Andrew Altward, the mustache of the year. Seemed more occupied with his art than with his dead personnel. All he was thinking about was his Calder, not a word about poor Wally Eastman.”
“Alexander Calder. Twentieth century sculptor. Famous for his mobiles and murder weapons.” Ron delivered the information matter-of-factly and gave me a wink. “Altward has some very valuable stuff in his gallery, Calendar assured me of that. And surprise, surprise, only the tacky French grandma stuff was stolen. None of the hot trendy stuff, which is strange. And Altward is one of the few people who are able to open the safe room.” Ron looked over at me. “Did I miss anything important?”
“Guess not.” I said, my consultant input worth its money.
Juanita cleared her throat. “All right, my turn again. I looked into the finances of our Mr. Altward. Phones listed in his name revealed the home you already know of, the penthouse. He resides in another home in Newport, inherited from his mom, sounds like a vacation place. I inquired with the Newport neighbors; they said he visits sometimes on the weekends.”
“Not too shabby,” I remarked. “Two homes in posh areas. And I am struggling with my shop.”
Juanita sighed. “Aren’t we all? But first looks can be deceptive. The penthouse and the gallery both belong to a foundation that his mother created for his benefit. So it is not really his directly. On the other hand, he doesn’t pay rent. Plus, it allowed him to build the gallery from scratch.” Juanita flipped over a page of her notebook with one of her ridiculously long fingernails. “Now, for the juicy part. He was not allowed to alter the basic substance of a historic building in the SD Gaslight district when he first opened his gallery. But Mr. Altward got it anyhow, so he could build his safe. The word in the city administration is that a very warm handshake took place ten years ago.”
“He bribed the building commissioner?” I asked to clarify.
“Yes,” Juanita smiled at my shocked expression. “Welcome to the world, girl. According to his tax filings, the value of the gallery is around ten million dollars, mostly defined by the inventory, meaning the artwork. Sound about right to you?”
I made a quick mental calculation and nodded slowly.
“You don’t look convinced, Calendar?” Ron asked.
“Do you know anything about company valuation?” I asked them. Both gave me a blank look. “Since I have a small store and workshop, I have to know a little bit about it and because I took some night classes I know a little more about bookkeeping than the average Jane Boutique.”
Ron settled back in his chair and yawned but Juanita said, “Go on.”
“The value of a company is defined by some factors, basically the sum of liabilities and debts plus money in the bank, assets like a house, revenue and inventory. In a gallery, it is tricky to valuate the inventory.”
“Because the value of the pictures or sculptures changes?”
“That’s right. Like your personal valuation may change with time because the prices of the stock in your equity portfolio changes. The work of a trendy artist is worth nothing when you start representing him. After the first exhibition—the prices may soar. After the first major auctions of that artist—the prices may explode. A picture with a virgin valuation of a thousand dollars may jump to ten thousand up to one million within years.”
“This is madness. Why is anyone investing in the stock market if you got that?” Ron asked amazed.
“Because stocks usually represent a belief in a company that produces something or services customers, creating value today and in the future. But a piece of art is always at the mercy of a collector or the buyer. The market is much smaller because good, lasting artists are hard to find and even harder to develop.”
“Could we please leave the subject and come back to the valuation of Altward’s gallery?” Juanita insisted.
“Excuse me, I got carried away.” I collected my thoughts. “Depending on the value of the art, the gallery is worth more or less. Got that?”
“Got it down. But who defines the value of a piece.”
“That is exactly the point. In the end, it is Altward himself or the auditor of his books who decides. Once a year, they look at each piece of art and decide on the value. That is based on the price Andrew Altward had to pay for it when he bought it. It additionally depends on the last sale of a similar piece by the artist or one of his peers. If we take our murder weapon, he might have bought it for two hundred thousand dollars a year ago. A comparable piece might have brought three hundred thousand a week ago at an auction. So, what is the value?”
Ron frowned. “Maybe somewhere in the middle?”
“Good assumption. So you put two hundred fifty into the book as the current value.”
“Coming back to Altward, if we value the gallery building as, let’s say, two million. Does eight million of inventory sound like a realistic number?”
I smiled at Ron. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much easier.”
“It depends, right?” Ron groaned. He passed a look at Juanita. “I hate these consultants.”
“Make love not war, Ron,” I said. “The thing is, with a little creativity, you can modify your inventory value by several factors. In Altward’s case, it may lie somewhere between four and eight million.”
“Hang on, just to get this right, Altward currently states his inventory at the upper range of his ‘legal’ manipulation possibilities.”
“From what I can tell with my shop-owner semi-layman knowledge, yes,” I nodded.
“Is it legal?”
I shrugged. “Ask my bookkeeper or an auditor. Certainly not if you are a publicly traded company with many investors to attract. For a small Mom and Pop outfit, it mainly has taxation issues and credit issues.”
“So Altward is cheating on his taxes,” Ron rapped his knuckles on the desk.
“Or he needs money from the bank,” I stated. “If Altward needs a large credit, the bank likes large securities.”
“What should he need money for? He has Mom’s foundation in the background and that could secure plenty,” Juanita said.
I gave her a look and she said to herself. “Oh, that is right, we are the police and we are supposed to find out.”
“Maybe he wants to expand and buy another gallery. That’s most likely. Or maybe he wants to buy a spectacular piece of art and needs money for that. Whatever it is, one thing is clear, because he had to fix his inventory to do it, he had to plan it a long time in advance. I bet, if you look back a few years, you will find that his inventory value was much lower.”
“Anything else?” Ron asked.
Juanita was still scribbling furiously on her pad. “My homework list just got much longer. Why do I hunt after stolen TV sets and table silver when companies can steal millions by just restating the value of pieces of junk-anything?” She turned back to the other notepad. “Andrew indeed had some loans going. Compared to the eight million dollars in inventory, it didn’t look like a lot at first, it is about two million dollars in long term debts, but with Calendar’s input, it may look significantly different.”
“Turning to the victim,” Juanita continued, “the preliminary reports of the coroner came in. Isn’t it fabulous what the promise of a date can achieve.” With a look in my direction. “Budget cuts, understaffing, too many deaths. Real life autopsy and the results documentation usually take weeks.” She curled a strand of hair around her index finger. “Wally Eastman died as a direct consequence of heavy bleeding inside the head and massive shock to the brain and nervous system, inflicted by the aforementioned mobile. Broken skull, part-patterns of the mobile indeed fit the impact area. Death within seconds, or minutes, no other wounds except for secondary ones when the body hit the floor. Quick screening for drugs and alcohol was negative. In short, he was artfully murdered.” She giggled and Ron rolled his eyes. “Oh, how I wanted to deliver that one.”
Juanita flipped over to the next page, organized. “The technicians from the alarm company are still trying to figure out how the fool-proof system got fooled. No word from them yet. The fingerprint and fiber analysis is still ongoing, the gallery is a public, dirty place and the cleaning woman comes in the mornings, so there were about four trillion prints and particles. None by Wally Eastman, which shows that he didn’t touch anything in the safe. He apparently entered the area and was killed immediately.”
We were silent for a minute, each of us thinking our own thoughts.
Ron looked around, “Any insights?”
“Neither Phoebe nor Altward look like violent types to me. There are some open questions but nothing… ” I was searching for the right word, “… solid.”
Ron gave me an amused look. “Good guess. Too little input.” He looked at Juanita.
“We will wait for what the dealer network of SD and Southern California bring up in the next days. I will dig into Altward and the daughter’s finances to see if I can find a money motive.”
“The case is going down the drain,” Ron exclaimed and then explained for my benefit. “The first 48 hours are over.”
“Am I dismissed now?” I asked.
“No, there are two more bits of news—the missing partner, Paul Faulkner, has turned up again. Plus, we found the ex-wife, Mrs. Ex-Andrew Altward.”
Ron said. “Usually ex-wives are a valuable source on the dirty laundry of their exes.”
So we went.